When Dzohar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated three handmade-bombs in Boston on April 15 it wasn’t an unprecedented event. Home grown terrorists such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in the 1970s and Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1995 both detonated improvised bombs in the USA and received extensive coverage.
Subsequently the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda bought terrorism to the fore of the public consciousness. The image of the plane crashing into the tower became a resonant meme, symbolising a culture that was irrevocably changed.
Though the Boston bombings were on a smaller scale than 9/11, it can be argued that they are definitive in that they revealed how much the media landscape has changed in the 11 intervening years. The defining attribute of the Boston coverage was the unprecedented flood of information. The 24-hour news cycle appeared to go into overdrive, stoked by the circulation of user generated content on social media.
Three days after the bombings The New York Post published photographs of two men with the headline Authorities Circulate Photos Of Two Men Spotted Carrying Bags Near Site of Boston Bombings.
The article then goes on to say: “One of the men is carrying a blue duffel bag. The other is wearing a black backpack in the first photo, taken at 10:53 am, but it is not visible in the second, taken at 12:30 pm.”
Neither of the men in the photo were suspects. One, Salah Barhoum, was a 16-year-old track athlete who had just completed the race. Eventually The Post ran an apology. Nevertheless it still raises questions about why the image wasn’t fact checked.
It was later revealed that Salah had been the victim of an online witch-hunt, implicated by his backpack and potentially the colour of his skin.
“It emerged very quickly that the bomb was most likely detonated inside of a backpack so the denizens of Reddit and Fourchan and all these other groups did is they started looking for suspicious looking people with backpacks. And that could be anyone,” said Brian Merchant, editor of Motherboard on the UK’s Dateline program.
The New York Post now faces legal action for subscribing to the unsubstantiated online consensus that Salah and his companion had committed the crime. Indeed Salah wasn’t the only suspect incorrectly identified on this basis. A missing person, Sunil Tripathi, was incorrectly identified as the suspect by Channel 9, Channel 7 and other news outlets and as the suspect. Both 9 and 7 also identified a second suspect, “Mike Mulugeta.”
On ABCs Media Watch Jonathan Homes revealed that Tripathi had been implicated by a Tweet from one of his neighbours remarking on his similarity to Dzohar Tsarnaev. Mulugeta it turned out was a name pulled from the police scanner with no link to the disaster.
When Tripathi’s body was found floating in Providence River in Rhode Island it was apparent that he was deceased at the time of the bombing. The circumstances that saw him posthumously pegged for the crime were tenuous: An unsubstantiated tweet, his missing status, and a non-white ethnicity that fit with the post 9-/11 stereotype of a person who commits terrorist acts.
Channel 9s Today Tonight ran a story that described Smart Phones as “A mobile newsroom in our pockets”, The story described how there were 330000 tweets bearing the #bostonmarathon in the three hours after the bombings.
“(The) problem is that there’s so much more information being produced so actually narrowing down on the right information is incredibly challenging.”
Said former NYPD Counter-Terrorism expert Steve Heitkamp on Dateline.
In six years Twitter has acquired over 200 million users. 140 character long Tweets provide links to text and photos in real time, with journalists tweeting news and users tweeting news related content.
The competition from users aka citizen journalists exaggerates the pressure to deliver the story first. But the problems with the model are evident. In the rush to fill the news cycle with content, dead air and erroneous reporting has become an occupational hazard.
On The Daily Show Jon Stewart lampooned CNN for also misidentifying Salah as the suspect. CNN followed this up with footage of reporters on the ground with nothing much to report.
In her haste to fill the slot with content CNNs Susan Candotti stated that: “Being here in Watertown right now, the streets are empty. It’s eerie. It’s as though a bomb had dropped somewhere.”
Which is of course what happened. Cenk Uygur, also discussing CNN on The Young Turks says that Journalists need to stop competing with citizen journalists because the stakes are higher when they get it wrong.
“Here’s the problem. They’re on TV the whole time. They’ve gotta say something. They’re dying to break a story so they can say ‘we’re the most trusted name in news. We got it first.’ And now they’re so worried about ‘oh my God Twitter’s gonna get it first’. Of course Twitter is gonna get it first. Because there’s constantly at least a hundred people saying something about any given issue (on Twitter). It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong. They’re random dudes in the middle of the country. But it matters if (journalists) are wrong,” said Uygur.
Journalist Clementine Bastow agrees that the pressure is on, and the result is that journalists are forgetting themselves in order to break the news before citizen journalists.
“The ease of dissemination of information that social media offers has been both a boon and a bane as far as journalism is concerned. As journalists and news broadcasters find themselves in competition to break stories faster, there can be a ‘race to the bottom’ aspect to the coverage; things like fact-checking and basic ethics seem to go out the window in favour of breaking stories – even if the ‘stories’ themselves later turn out to be false,” said Bastow.
And though false stories can be corrected or removed from the web entirely, traces can persist online and have ramifications for those who may have been implicated.
On the Dart website Liz Heron, Director of Social Media and Engagement at The Wall Street Journal says succinctly that the role of the contemporary journalist is to be a ‘debunker.’ She suggests that rather than delving into the Twittersphere to find information and then reporting it as fact, Twitter should be the departure point for gathering data, not the only source.
For in the wake of Boston bombings it’s evident that the role of the 21st journalist is not only to present the facts, but perhaps more importantly to correct the litany of incorrect facts that pervade the news cycle.